LAGUNA BEACH, CA –Ford Motor Co. halted Explorer SportTrac production last June, skipped the ’06 model year and now comes to market with the all-new ’07 version that is wider, longer and for the first time powered by an optional V-8 engine.

The half SUV, half pickup is basically the same as the ’07 4-door Explorer from the B-pillar forward but retains the composite box, which is nearly 29% larger than the one on the previous model.

Built on a 130-in. (330-cm) wheelbase, the new version is 2 ins. (5 cm) wider and 4.5 ins. (11.4 cm) longer than the previous SportTrac.

Prices start at $24,940 for the base XLT, while the higher-content Limited starts at $26,540.

SportTrac borrows the tubular frame design from the F-150 that is nearly five times stiffer to improve ride and handling. The F-150’s steel tailgate also is adopted on the new model.

Officials decline to set a sales target for this year, and Ford doesn’t release actual SportTrac sales numbers separately from the Explorer.

Ford plans to use the Internet extensively to market the new model, says Barry S. Redler, Ford Div. SUV group marketing manager.

In addition to repeat buyers, Ford will attempt to appeal to “adventurous, outdoorsy people” who want “the toughness of the F-150” combined with car-like features and with optional 4-wheel drive for heading off-road with their “kayaks and mountain bikes” stashed in the rear box, Redler says.

During a test drive north over steep, twisting back roads from San Diego to this seaside city near Irvine, the V-8-powered SportTrac proved remarkably quiet, with barely noticeable wind and engine noise. Ford added independent rear suspension for ’07, providing this feature at all four wheels to reduce harshness on rough surfaces for much smoother handling.

The new SportTrac also incorporates numerous safety features, importantly including an anti-roll system that monitors roll angle 150 times per second. If a major roll angle is detected, Ford’s AdvanceTrac with roll stability control moves into action to keep all four wheels on the ground. Four-wheel antilock disc brakes with traction control are integral to the system. And for the first time, side curtain airbags are standard for both front and rear passengers.

SportTrac’s interior blends in a heavy dose of chrome, including cup-shaped door handles designed to fit the hand, and the shifter is moved from the steering column to the console, also borrowed from the F-150.

Rather than carpeting, a rubber-like material that easily can be hosed out or wiped down is carried over from the prior model, although heavy-duty berber floor mats are standard. A message center indicating outside temperature and compass heading is standard, while a heated windshield and 10-way heated front seats are optional. A navigation system and power backlight are upcoming options, Ford sources say.

The new 4.6L V-8 (a $1,200 option) produces 292 hp at 5,570 rpm and 300-lb.ft. (407 Nm) of torque at 3,950 rpm. The 3-valve-per cylinder arrangement with single overhead cams and variable are features shared by the Mustang GT and the F-Series and Expedition, Ford says. The engine is mated to a 6-speed automatic transmission.

Towing capacity is 6,800 lbs. (3,084 kg) and the payload is 1,430 lbs. (649 kg). V-8 fuel economy is 15/21 mpg city/highway (15.7-11.2 L/100 km) for the 4x2 versions and14/20 mpg (16.8-11.8 L/100 km) with 4WD.

The standard 4L V-6 features single overhead cams and two valves per cylinder. It generates 210 hp at 5,100 rpm and 254 lb.-ft. (344 Nm) of torque at 3,700 rpm and is mated to a 5-speed automatic transmission.

The V-6’s towing capacity is 5,310 lbs. (2,409 kg) and the payload is 1,450 lbs. (658 kg). V-6 fuel economy is 15/21 mpg for both 4x2 and 4x4 versions.

SportTrac’s optional full-time 4WD provides automatic torque transfer and torque multiplying in low range to operate only when additional traction is needed. During a short, steep and rocky off-road course on the test drive the 4x4 system proved to be easily up to the task.

SportTrac comes standard with 16-in. cast aluminum wheels, but 17-in. and 18-in. wheels are optional. Other options include a moonroof, keyless entry, tonneau cover, cargo bed extender, Sirius Satellite radio and AM/FM stereo with 6-disc CD changer and MP3 capability.